Archive | March 2005

To the mountains I go

Hi everyone. I leave for the “Around Annapurna” trek here in Nepal in about 15 minutes and it will take me about 17 days to complete. I won’t have any updates until then, but when I do, expect the pictures to be incredible (and for me to have a big beard).

Until then, watch your backs.

Hellooooo Nepal

My flight to Nepal entailed a one night layover in Bangladesh. Jesus, what an experience that was…

A quick hint: Never fly Biman Air (Bangladesh Airlines). I have never seen such and inefficient and chaotic business in my life. I am sure they only stay alive because they are subsidized by the state. After several hours of delays, we finally got to board the airplane. Then we waited around for another hour. The chairs were soooo small that my knees smashed into the chair in front of me. There was no movie – only cheesy Bangladesh karaoke shows and people started yelling and getting irate because we weren’t leaving and they wouldn’t tell us why. When we finally arrived, I got into the terminal and had no idea where to go – and neither did any of the staff. I finally made it to the transfer desk where they took my ticket, gave me a token and told me to wait. They forgot about me and after 30 minutes I asked them if they were going to take me to the hotel. They then rushed me to the passport officials where they confiscated my passport and gave me a coupon. They then whisked me away to the outside where they left me. I had to walk around and show my token to a bunch of guys and finally one told me to get in a van with a bunch of Indians. We waited around for nearly 2 hours and then were finally taken to the hotel. The ride over was insane – it was 10:00PM and the streets were still packed with thousands of rickshaws, taxis, vans, buses, people and everything else you could imagine. We spent 45 minutes zipping through, slamming on the brakes, randomly accelerating and nearly rolling over a few times. Some old middle eastern guy next to me was flipping out and I thought he was about to lose it. He kept running his hands through his hair and stomping his feet.

Once I was at the hotel, I was forced to share a room with some weird Indian guy who later told me that he didn’t like being alone (ooookay…) and so he was happy he was with me, and dinner wasn’t ready until around midnight. In the morning, they brought me from the hotel late, but no matter, because they flight was delayed a few hours. I was abandoned at the airport by the hotel staff and I walked in and showed my token. They made me wait for 30 minutes while they got my ticket and then I had to wait another 30 minutes while they looked for the key to the box where my passport was. I had to wait another 2 hours for the flight to leave and the food was ice cold when they finally served lunch after boarding.

What an experience that was!

So I’m in Nepal now. After arriving, I made my way to the town and checked into a hotel. I then met up with my buddy Zach with whom I’ll do the “Around Annapurna” track – which is around 18 days long. We met in Laos and decided to do the trek together. I spent yesterday wandering around Kathmandu and am now pretty settled. Tomorrow we will catch the bus to Pokhara where we will start the trek. Nepal seems pretty quiet and as usual, it reminds me a whole lot of Cuzco, Peru in that it is kind of in the mountains and is made up of a bunch of winding alley ways with touts and beggers everywhere. It’s not anything like Bangladesh, though. As you walk through the narrow alleys, old buildings tower above you on either side and the store owners stand outside with big smiles asking you to take a look at their wares. Guys sit on rickshaws and ask you where you want to go. Cars and motorcycles zip by and nearly run you over as you walk down the narrow roads, but it’s not nearly as bad as I imagine India would be. It’s quite cool, especially at night – which is a welcome respite from the unbearable heat and humidity of Southeast Asia.

As you walk through the streets, the aroma of smokey and musty incense fills your nose. Ahhhh, Kathmandu.

All the news reports of mass protests and civil unrest are blown out of proportion. I’m sure there were a few protests in isolated regions of Nepal, but they were short lived. There are probably more anti-Bush demonstrations in LA.

I will, however, ensure that I take only tourist buses. The Maoists target government entities, so I’ll have to be careful about that. Other than that, I’ll be in the mountains for the next few weeks.

I’m a bit frustrated that I may end up missing out on India. I did a calculation of my schedule and it seems that I’ll make it to India in the middle of the Summer monsoon. India would be a challenge in cool climate and I don’t know if I want to be walking around in 120 degree heat and 100% humidity while beggars and touts attack me everywhere I go. Would you? That frees up a few months so I’ll have to decide what I want to do. Maybe I can add a bit of Europe onto my trip. I can zip through a few countries and meet up with some friends. Or maybe I can drive across the US on my motorcycle for a month or two. We’ll see. I guess I can do India during subsequent vacations from work. After all, I have to leave some of the world for the future!

Nepal, here I come!

While sitting in the hostel restaurant and joking around with the staff, I overheard a guy tell the waiter that he was from Columbia.

“Ahhh,” I thought to myself. “I haven’t spoken Spanish in a month!”

I strike up a conversation and we chat away for a while. The Columbian accent is pretty funny for those who haven’t heard it. It rises and falls in a melody and accent – just like a song. We talked about Thailand, Southeast Asia, Columbia, Australia (where he’d been living) and stuff like that. I was wondering why the hell he wasn’t asking me where I learned Spanish. Usually people look at me in amazement and are really curious about it.

“Una pregunta: de donde en Espana eres?” he looked at me inquisitively.

I checked to see if he was joking. I did a quick scan to see if he was the flattering type. He didn’t appear to be. He had just asked me where in Spain I was from.

“Ehhh, California…” I replied with a half smirk.

He was in dismay. It made sense though. The accent wasn’t quite South American and I sure as hell didn’t look Spanish (but there are always exceptions – like half the rich people in Bolivia who look whiter than me) and although I was using a lot of Spain Spanish words, I wasn’t using much slang.

A German girl came and sat with us and he looked at her. “This guy speaks Spanish like a Spaniard!”

Now, I probably don’t need to emphasize how happy that made me. I’ve tried for two years now to ditch the retarded sounding gringo accent and it seems that I’ve finally been able to pull it off. And with time, I’ll only get better. It’s funny how you can play on people’s ignorance of the other accents and the fact that lots of South Americans and Spanish people look white to your advantage. A Spanish guy would never think I was from Spain. A South American would never think I was from his respective country. But they can’t pin the accent – and that’s fine by me.

We spent the rest of the evening joking around and playing pool. It was a fun night.

Now I’m in a city called Ayuthaya. I took the bus in the evening after picking up my ticket for Nepal and eventually arrived around 9:00PM. Once there, I met a Canadian chick and we chatted for a while and made arrangements to visit the temples the next day (this place has lots of really old Angkor style temples throughout the city) and I was telling her about Laos (where she was thinking of going). I told her about the bus ride from Luang Nam Tha to Thailand and how horribly fun it was and how a guys chair actually broke after we were thrown in the air with a huge bump. Just then, the guy whose chair broke walked up to me and tapped me on the shoulder.

“Do I know you? I think I’ve met you somewhere.”

He then joined our conversation. Think about it for a moment. I meet a guy a month and a half ago and then randomly bring up a conversation and bring him up at the exact moment that he walks up to me (he didn’t hear me talking about him). Weird. He had quite a few funny stories about his time in central Thailand and we all eventually went to bed. The next morning, Av (the Canadian chick) and I rented a motorbike and went out to visit the temples. Although they weren’t anything like Angkor, they were pretty cool and fairly impressive. The heat eventually got to us and we went back to the hostel and rested – and I pet the hostel dog for a few hours. She really reminds me of my old dog Patches and a few years ago got ran over by a motorcycle and lost some teeth so her tongue permanently hangs out of the side of her mouth.

After a nap, I took the motorbike out alone and visited a few more temples, an elephant park (where it was quite sad to see all the elephants chained up and stuff) and an old Portuguese settlement where they had excavated a bunch of skeletons and stuff. That evening I went back to the hostel and checked out the market. And just kind of hung out. I’m bracing myself for Nepal.

I’ve thought a lot about how I’ve changed over the past year and a half. I’ve been gone for quite a while and although I’m ready to come home, I still want to see so much – and will stick with this until I’m done. It’s funny the things you miss. I miss my dog. I miss having dinner on Sunday at my dad’s. I miss having dinner with my mom on Friday night. I miss hopping in my truck or on my motorcycle and riding to Alex’s house and having a few beers with my friends. I miss (god forbid) working. But, like when going to university, you see that finishing something like this is much better for you in the long run. Cramming for tests and getting up early every morning isn’t fun, but you have a degree at the end of it. Traveling and being in a strange place and constantly meeting new people and doing things all day can be quite draining and demanding – but you see that you know a lot more and have quite a bit more experience by the end of it. When I started this trip, I liked to think that I was going to be this hardcore traveler and never miss anything. But it’s just not human nature.

I’ve noticed how much better I can navigate places. You could throw me in the middle of a country with a compass, a map, and a few bucks and I could get around just fine (After all, I kinda do it everyday). I can strike up a random conversation with anyone about anything and carry it on for quite a while without any problems. I can end conversations smoothly and efficiently (and leave the person thinking that the conversation just ended naturally).

I’m a lot more confident in what I’m doing and where I’m going. I know myself really well as I’ve passed quite a bit of boring times pondering aspects of me and why I do, did and have done certain things. I’ve seen tons of cultures and talked with people from lots of different countries and I’ve got quite a bit of input as to why they do certain things and what they believe. I’ve even learned a bit of Chinese.

I think I’ve learned more in this past year and a half than I would have learned in 20 years back home. It’s been an incredible time…

It truly has.

Busted for gum smuggling

Last night, after buying some fake CD’s on Kao San Rd. (the tourist district of downtown Bangkok), I met a Dutch girl and we went to get a few beers and chatted about Holland, Thailand, Australia, and some other random stuff.

As we sat, a man came up to the guy sitting next to us and smashed his fist into his face. The tables flew in all directions, beer bottles shattered, I got drenched with beer (awww, damnit…I’m gonna have to wash these shorts now…) and the man stood there over the other guy pounding his face into a pulp. I stood up, backed away a few steps to a safe distance and calmly and curiously watched. There happened to be a cop standing right there and he put them all in handcuffs and hauled them away. An ambulance and the cop cars showed up, put the bloody faced guy in and then left. As the dust settled and the waitresses straightened the chairs and tables, the cop went and bought a beer and went back to his motorcycle. He couldn’t figure out where to put it so that he could drive, so he put it in his storage compartment.

We sat back down and continued talking.

I think I’ve gotten a bit desensitized. I think the only thing that has surprised me in the past 6 months has been that flower. It was just so random and strange – but I think I’ve seen quite a bit now and it’s interesting how that changes the nature of the trip.

Singapore was a shock. I am so used to chaotic street corners, people yelling and screaming, running around, begging, selling, cars everywhere, people pissing in the streets, crazy smells – you get the idea – that when I showed up to Singapore, I found myself constantly wandering around saying to myself, “Where the hell is everyone??” The place is remarkably clean (although, even though it’s illegal, you can still see chewing gum stains on the sidewalks) and everything is so orderly and uncrowded. It’s crazy. People stop for you on the streets, people are friendly, everyone speaks English. And of course, the prices are higher.

After hopping on a bus in the morning in Kuala Lumpur, I eventually arrived in Singapore. I met two Swedish girls on the bus and we decided to go to the same hostel, which I had picked out due to its rave reviews on hostelworld.com and due to the fact that although it was a bit more expensive, it had air conditioning, free Internet and breakfast and was very central. After the bus dropped us off, we wandered around for a while and tried to find a bus to Chinatown. We met a guy who tried to give us directions, but then just said he would take us in his car (which was really tiny but we all managed to fit with our backpacks in our laps) and he gave us a bit of a tour as we drove. He was a really nice guy and even gave us his phone number in case we ran into trouble.

I asked him about the illegality of chewing gum.

“Sooo, chewing gum is illegal here, huh?”
“Yeesssssss, but it’s no problem. You can chew it. You just don’t tell anyone, you know?”

Visions of a man running down a dark alley and hurriedly shoving a piece of chewing gum in his mouth as he chewed frantically and looked around furtively for signs that someone was approaching popped into my mind. I smiled.

“Yeah, I understand.”

When we eventually arrived to the hostel, I got settled in and relaxed for a bit. It was indeed a great place (www.summertaver.com) and I really enjoyed my stay there. I didn’t do all too much except lay around and play chess on the Internet (I really needed a break to recover) and occassionally venture outside for an hour or two to visit a museum or site. I would go out to dinner with people from the hostel in the evening or just read. It was really nice.

Singapore was a really nice place and I enjoyed my time there. It was really really (reallyreallyreallyreally) hot though. I liked wandering around and looking at the architecture, which is quite a mix of colonial style with new modern buildings. I mostly sweated though. I bought a shirt too. The subway is nothing short of remarkable, too. You buy a ticket from a machine and you just have to pass it over a magnetic detector for it to let you in. It’s impecably clean and it’s usually deserted (which I still don’t understand). And the girls are beautiful there. I mean, it’s not like Argentina, but you have a lot of classy girls there. I was in constant dismay about the fact that I couldn’t find many pretty girls in Beijing and I chalked it up to maybe not liking Chinese girls. But I come to Singapore and I see that that’s not true. There are some really hot ones, let me tell you. They look a lot more western in style though and have a lot more attitude – which is attractive. Singapore girls carry themselves differently from Beijing girls.

Singapore is such a mixture of Indians and Chinese and it’s really interesting to see how they all work together. You can listen to a Chinese (by ethnicity, of course – they are Singaporean, really) and he has a heavy Chinese accent. You listen to an Indian and he has a heavy Indian accent – but they both probably speak English better than Chinese or Hindi. I met a girl from Singapore in Laos and she told me that although they speak English in Singapore, they speak “Chinglish”, which is true. It’s almost like it’s their own language trimmed for maximum efficiency. Who really needs articles and the past tense, anyways?

Yesterday I took the train to the airport (I’ve only done that in Australia – usually you have to take a bus or taxi), and after marveling at the Singapore airport (they even had a movie room, where I sat in a huge cusioned seat and watched some flicks), and zipping past the army guys with huge AK-47’s (which seemed a bit out of place), I took off to Bangkok. I counted it up – I’ve taken off and landed 19 times in the past year and a half now. Beat that!

When I landed in Bangkok, I bought a ticket for the shuttle in to town and was informed that I would have to wait for 30 minutes so I took a seat inside – where there was air conditioning. Some really old German lady tried to talk to me and I looked at her apologetically and said I didn’t understand – that I only spoke English. She was then quiet. Three minutes later, she started talking to me again and I shrugged my shoulders as she rambled. She made a sign like she understood and had just forgot. She stood up, shaking like a leaf, took a drink of water and sat back down. She waited three more minutes before talking to me again at full speed. I looked at her and said I didn’t understand. She made the same sign like she had just forgot and would keep quiet. She stood up again and took another drink of water. It’s about that time that I realized that she probably had a really interesting story. She was obviously crazy. And she was sitting in the Bangkok airport arrival lounge with no bags and knew no English. How did she get there and what the hell was she doing there? Seeing as I couldn’t ask her anything and it was getting really awkward with her looking at me, I looked at my watch and pretended like I had to go somewhere. I moved outside and continued waiting.

Two hours later I arrived back at Kao San Rd and booked into a hotel. I then bought a ticket to Nepal. I then went and got something to eat and met the dutch girl. Then I watched a guy get his face smashed in by another guy, and that’s where I started this post (full circle!).

I leave for Nepal in two days, so I will take the train this evening to Ayuthaya, spend a day and then come back in time to leave. I am flying with Bangladesh Air, which is not only the cheapest option at $180 bucks (Nepal Air is $230), I also get a one night layover in Bangladesh – with the hotel paying for the hotel and all the food. Score!

There is some unrest in Nepal right now – which I’ve read quite a bit about in the Economist and google.com/news (and the worried emails with attached newspaper articles I’ve been getting from my dad). But there is unrest everywhere. I’ve talked to people there now and they say there are no problems – it’s just a local thing and as long as you stay away from the trouble areas, you’ll be fine. Luckily, I’m not a Maoist and thus won’t be obliged to attend any protests where I might get arrested. I’ll also be hundreds of miles away from all the drama as I hike in the mountains (where the Maoists merely hold you up and ask for a “donation” of $5 bucks – and then give you a reciept which guarantees your safety and is your proof that you paid and that you don’t have to pay again to the next group). The Maoists want tourists to keep coming so they can get the money (their only source of funding) and so they don’t cause any trouble for them. The government is the only problem and it’s fairly easy to steer clear of all that so as not to get caught in the crossfire. I’m not too worried about it.

And with that, I go.

Now THAT’S a flower!

Malaysia is a really cool country. It didn’t take long for it to become one of my favorites. Why? Let’s back up.

Everything in Malaysia is rugged. Except for the people. It’s a country of contrasts. When I first arrived, I could hear those crazy screaming bugs (remember them from Bolivia?) humming by the thousands immediately after crossing over the border. It was almost as though they obeyed the international boundary and just sat in a tree on the Malay side. It’s cheaper in Malaysia – so that’s probably it. I imagine that a crazy screaming bug doesn’t get paid too much and must pay attention to these things.

But I digress. As I crossed the border, I was greeted by a Malay man with a warm, but hurried, “Hello. Welcome to Malaysia!” as he passed. I was stamped into the country and was immediately taken aback by the helpfulness of the people. People seem to go out of their ways to help you and a surprising number of people know English. This is a strongly Muslim country and it’s plain to see. There are mosques instead of Buddhist temples (although there are a few); the women wear head scarves and lots of men wear funny hats. It’s a nation where hats rule supreme. Seeing as the sun is really strong here, that’s probably not a bad thing. In the evening, the loudspeakers blast the Muslim call to prayer like I imagine it would be in Turkey or Iran. It’s all quite interesting.

And the place has such personality. It’s quirky and fun. The tuk tuk drivers decorate their tuk tuks with all sorts of headlights and switches (which I doubt actually work, but look damned cool) and all the animals are extreme here. Why, just the other day I actually said, “is that a cat, or a rat?” The insects are like tanks. They have tigers and wild pigs in the jungle. This place is home to the world’s largest flower and stuff like pitcher plants and panthers. Malaysia is surprisingly developed for being a “poor” country and the people here love to laugh. People everywhere are smiling and goofing around. They don’t mind talking to you and always love a good joke. And it’s such a mixture of cultures. There are Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, and Malay all living together under a common flag and a common nationality while all retaining their unique cultural characteristics. It’s something quite unique, I think.

It’s awesome.

So what have I been up to? From the jungle, I caught the bus early in the morning to Kuala Lumpur and then immediately to The Cameron Highlands. I was going the same direction as Luther and Keely, an English couple, so we went together and ended up spending the next few days together. We actually missed the bus to the Cameron Highlands, but were able to get a bus to a town about 30 miles away from which we were hoping to catch a bus to where we wanted to go. When we arrived, however, it was pouring down rain and there was a power outage – and the last bus had already gone. We eventually tracked down a guy who would take us in his car and after negotiations, we were on our way. We had our doubts. His 1979 Malaysian made car looked like it was on its last leg. And it was really coming down outside. But we went anyways.

There were (of course) no seat belts. But then, much to our dismay, he revealed an LCD screen in the front of the car. And he then put on Bruce Lee Return of the Dragon. That VCD alone transformed the 2 hour long ride from a nightmare into an incredible experience. Bruce Lee movies, for those who haven’t seen them, are excellent. Beyond excellent, I would say. They are perhaps the best movies ever made.

After the movie, we eventually arrived at the highlands and eventually found a room. They only had one left at the hostel so we took it. It was in the attic and the walls were paper thin, but we didn’t care. Zachi, the manager, was a great guy and as soon as we arrived he introduced us to everyone. He remembered everyone’s name and he was able to create quite a family atmosphere. Every new arrival became a new friend and I spent the next few days hanging out, drinking tea (which the Cameron Highlands are known for as they have thousands of acres of tea plantations everywhere), playing chess (I attained the title Chess Master), and exploring the nearby tea plantations. I also took a tour to see the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower. It was great.

I can remember watching a BBC documentary titled “The Private Life of Plants” (which is nothing short of spectacular, by the way) and learning about this crazy flower called the Rafflesia. It is a parasite and spends the year sucking energy from its host, usually a tree. The bud grows larger and larger and then, in 24 hours bursts open to reveal a massive flower. The flower can be as big as three feet in diameter and it emits a rotting flesh smell in order to attract flies which will then carry its seeds away. The flower stays in bloom for 5-7 days, then rots away. It is extremely rare and is quite hard to find. I thought they were only in Borneo, the other part of Malaysia, but as I was walking through Tanah Ratta, I saw a sign at a kiosk saying that it was in bloom and I could go see it. I was doubtful, but they showed me pictures. $30 dollars later, I was booked on a 4 wheel drive tour for the next day.

It was an excellent day, indeed. The next morning, I was picked up and there were only two other tourists on the tour. We drove for an hour, then an hour off road (and what a rough path it was), picked up a local aboriginal guide and then trekked for about 2 hours through the rainforest to the spot where the flower was in bloom. When we arrived (the guide and I were much more in shape than the other two older tourists and arrived first), he pointed it out to me and I was in awe. It sat there in the silent darkness of the rainforest and after marveling for a few moments, I began snapping photos. I was really excited. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t usually get excited about stuff like this, but this flower is really something special. It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie and was definitely worth the tour. Unfortunately, it was at the end of its bloom and had already started decaying, but I plan to see this flower again in my life so I’ll get a proper picture of it (My next vacation will probably be to Borneo).

The rest of the day was spent exploring the rain forest, visiting an Orang-Asli (aboriginal) village and shooting darts from a blow pipe (how they hunt), going to the highest peak and checking out the pitcher plants (another really cool carnivorous plant) and then heading back. It was a great day.

I had spent the previous day exploring the area’s largest tea plantation. The bus drops you off 2 k’s from the plantation and you have to walk through the tea field valleys to get to the factory. The views were spectacular.

My evenings were spent going out with the “gang” (we all became friends in the hostel and went out to dinner together) and playing chess. The past few days have been quite fun and I’m glad I made it up there. It was quite cool seeing as it was so high up and the coolness was quite a nice respite from the heat of the lowlands.

So now I’m back in Kuala Lumpur. It’s hot and I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’ll spend a day or two here and then head to Singapore. Yes, sir. Malaysia is quite a cool country, indeed.

Lions, Tigers and Bears

I just spent 4 days in the jungle. I stripped off all my clothes and ran around with a spear with paint all over my face. I shot poison darts I fashioned the nectar of a special tree and shot them at monkeys. And then ate them.

Actually, I didn’t. I just made that up. But I did sweat a lot. Literally – I think you could have filled a lot with my sweat, assuming it had the proper barriers to prevent the sweat from spilling out, that is.

So what’s the jungle like? I spent quite a bit of time walking thinking about how to describe it. I’ll try to hit the main points:

Imagine a 130 million year old jungle. Dense green vegetation, massive towering and imposing trees, brown rivers and streams carving out pieces of the land and monkeys swinging from trees. Imagine brown and yellow leaves covering the ground in every direction dotted with the odd red leaf and yellow or white blossoms which are constantly falling from the sky (well, actually the trees, but they are so high up that it might as well be the sky). The trees, vines and bushes usually obscure your view of the sky forming a dense canopy above but when you come to a clearing the blue sky is dotted with wispy white clouds with usually a few ominous darker clouds in the distance – never coming much closer though. And when you do come to that clearing you are naked and exposed. The jungle no longer protects you in its moist cacoon and the sun beats down on you with all its might – as though to punish you for escaping its wrath for the past few hours.

The jungle is oppressively hot and humid. Even in the canopy the air is thick. You sweat everywhere and your clothes very quickly become drenched. Your skin is always slick and you are constantly thirsty, drinking water by the liter at each setting. The water you drink tastes like iodine because you put iodine tablets to purify it – since you take it from the stream. Crazy water insects float about around your bottle (we all know how crazy water insects can be). Roots and vines with massive ants and termites marching across cut through the jungle floor in every direction requiring great care in placing each step lest your foot get caught and you fall flat on your face. Monkeys and birds of a thousand varieties howl with excitement in the distance, like something out of a movie. Insects tick and growl and chirp and hum like an omnipresent generator running on some intense form of energy extracted from the thickness of the air. Trees shake and whisper above, branches crack and break with the wind and massive leaves come crashing down into the pile already below. Frogs croak, flies buzz by your head and the streams trickle and roar by.

And the smells are incredible. My favorite part of the jungle.

Smells are very hard to describe, especially if they are unique. While walking in the jungle at any given time, you are assaulted with a number of smells wafting past your nose, coating the insides of your nostrils – sometimes in unison, sometimes in overlapping sessions. Often times the smell of over-ripe banana fills the jungle air. After that, you may get hit with mint, or fresh cut grass or leaves. Sweet golden honey might be next along with the aroma of wild flowers and vanilla. Pine needles, sage, pepper, the spicy tinny smell of fertile mud and soil, grain and alfalfa, citrus, dark chocolate and a faint hint of beer (although this could have been detected because I would have killed for a beer by day three of my trek). All these scents and countless more mix together in a thick, wet cocktail – inhaled instead of drunk and not nearly as refreshing as intoxicating.

It was quite an experience. So what happened before I arrived here?

Well, I left Thailand. I took the train south, arrived at the border, got stamped out then stamped into Malaysia and wandered about trying to find the train station.

They put it in the next town over so I had to rely on the friendliness of strangers to figure out which bus to take and when. I eventually made it to the next town over and ended up missing my train after waiting two hours for it due to the fact that Malaysian time is one hour ahead from Thailand (who knew?). I spent the night in Kota Baru, the Muslim stronghold of Malaysia and then took the train in the morning to Jerrantut, the jumping off point for the boat ride to the Kuala Tahan and Taman Negara. The train was incredible – as Lonely Planet calls it, an engineering marvel. The line is cut right out of the jungle and winds and twists all the way south down to Singapore. There was no AC and it was unbelievably hot (you sweat the whole time) and there were roaches crawling everywhere – with about 4 or 5 on the seat in front of me at any given time. They crawled up my shirt and I had to smash them and get up and shake my shirt so they would fall out.

Did you just cringe? Pussy. They were small roaches though – not that intimidating.

After I arrived, I spent the night in Jerrantut (where it rained something fierce) and the next day took a boat to the jungle. Once there I booked into a $2 room and headed to the Canopy Walk: a series of bridges built high up into the trees of the jungle and upon which you walk and marvel at how high you are. From there I went back to my “hotel” and spent the evening talking Malaysian politics and economics with a Malaysian guy named Halim and a German kid who had spent 6 months there. It was really cool.

The next day I headed into the jungle with three days worth of food and a stove. I walked to the first stop, a “hide” in the jungle. This is a cabin/fort structure overlooking an open part of the jungle where you can sit and wait for animals to come by. They have beds and a shower (from the river water) and I stayed there the night. I ended up being the only one for the whole night and although I didn’t see many animals, I did get visited by a rat running around on the tin roof the whole night. A mouse visited me in the night and ran around on the top bunk of my bed at which point I chased him around with my broom. It was strange that I was alone because the night before there were 13 people there and the next night, I later found out, there were 10 people. There had been two other people signed up for my night, but I ended up being the only one. Not too bad.

The next day I hiked to a cave. It was only two hours so I arrived quite early. After exploring the cave I lay on the hammock for a while and finished my Economist then went out and gathered some firewood. This cave is in the middle of the forest and there isn’t much else to do. I tried to find some running water and found a small stream that was just barely trickling (it’s been a dry wet season) and had lunch. I was questioning the water quite a bit but figured that whatever bugs I was drinking were dead after I iodine tableted them. I went back to my cave (where I was to sleep) and started a fire. I was ready to wait out the night in my cave, which was actually quite big.

Did the prospect of sleeping in a cave in the middle of the jungle freak me out at all? Yeah, kind of. But I wanted to do it just because it freaked me out. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t get eaten by a tiger – at worst bitten by a rat (which I had heard were quite numerous in said cave). But more than anything was boredom. I had nothing to read and I didn’t want to go outside because it was so hot and much cooler in the cave. I contemplated life over a can of beans I warmed by the fire.

Just then a tour group came in and started making camp. They were surprised to see me in their cave but we soon became friends and, after making a huge bonfire, even went on a jungle safari with their guide later that night. I woke up with rat droppings a few inches from my head. They couldn’t believe that I was doing all this alone. I guess they felt better paying 200 bucks each for some guy to walk around with them. I remembered the guide I was forced to pay for in the cave in Thailand. “HELLO! ICE CREAM CONE!”…”yes…that does look like an ice cream cone…how much am I paying you?”

The next day was an easy 15 mile walk back to Kuala Tahan and I really enjoyed it. Once back in town I walked my stinky body straight to a restaurant and ordered beef, drank down a coca-cola and for dessert ordered a huge banana milk shake.

I was shattered when she said they were out of ice and therefore couldn’t make my shake.

I explained to her that I had been walking around for 3 days in the jungle dreaming of her banana shakes. “Okay okay okay,” she said. She ordered her little brother to go buy some ice. YES!

A shower felt good. So did a break. I gave my aching muscles a break and chatted with Halim about whether China should unpeg their yuan to the dollar.

You know how emotional currency debates can become.

This morning I caught the bus back to Jerantut and will leave in an hour to Kuala Lumpur. Then it’s off to the Cameron Highlands and next Singapore for a few days.

All I have to say is this: God bless air conditioning. I mean…it’s just so beautiful. It makes me want to cry.